Other West Coast cities are also trying to build their way out of unaffordability, with dubious and divisive strategies, and little to show for it
In a remarkable recent editorial in the New York Times, staff writer Timothy Egan assesses the reaction of governments in San Francisco and Seattle to familiar problems for Portlanders — soaring home prices, displacement, inequality, homelessness — and he finds them wanting.
The article, titled “Down and Out in San Francisco, on $117,000 a Year,” notes that city is now so expensive that a family income of over $100,000 is now considered “below the poverty line.” Egan questions whether the government there has a handle on the challenge: “Can people accept more crowded neighborhoods, in a city that is already the second most densely populated among big cities in the nation, if they feel that elected leaders do not have a decent plan — or a clue?”
Egan reports that the City of San Francisco spends an eye-popping $250 million a year on a population of 7,500 homeless — translating into about $33,000 per person per year. To put that in perspective, that’s enough money to purchase a home worth about $400,000 for each homeless person. Yet the city’s problems persist unabated.
Egan goes on to describe (and criticize) his own home city of Seattle:
In Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city for this decade, the social contract is nearly broken. The city used to be run by creative problem solvers. Now, an ideologically driven City Council dreams up new things to anger residents while seeming to let the homeless have the run of the place.
Portlanders might well marvel at the parallels to their own city, as deep and bitter ideological divisions open up between former allies: environmentalists and preservationists, equity advocates and neighborhood activists. Meanwhile, developers are having a field day:
An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians. If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.
But surely if Portland follows the same path, we will have different results? We are reminded of Jane Jacobs’ quip, that planning — or we could substitute here, government policy — “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”
We need a new urbanism. For all the grumping about how great the cities facing the Pacific used to be, they can be greater still if the bright minds now trying to “disrupt” a grilled cheese sandwich can focus on the biggest challenge of this generation. We know what doesn’t work. The task is to find a creative mix of solutions that do.